Tag Archives: Fid

My War On ATM Spam and Other Annoyances

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(This is a copy of my weekly syndicated column)

You really don’t need to thank me, but I think you should know that for the past 10 years I’ve been fighting a lonely battle on your behalf. I’ve been taking on mighty corporations to rid the world of spam.

Not the spam you’re familiar with. Email spam is still around, it’s just not in your inbox, for the most part. Filters do a great job of keeping it out.

I’m talking about more serious things, like eye spam, cabin spam, hand spam,  counter spam and now, my most recent campaign, ATM spam.

Now there’s a possibility you might not have heard of these terms. Mainly because I made most of them up. But you’ll surely have experienced their nefarious effects.

Eye spam is when something is put in front of your face and you can’t escape from it. Like ads for other movies on DVDs or in cinemas that you can’t skip. Cabin spam is when flight attendants wake you from your post-prandial or takeoff slumber to remind you that you’re flying their airline, they hope you have a pleasant flight and there’s lots of duty free rubbish you wouldn’t otherwise consider buying wending its way down the aisle right now.

Then there’s hand-spam: handouts on sidewalks that you have to swerve into oncoming pedestrian traffic to avoid. Counter spam is when you buy something and the assistant tries to sell you something else as well. “Would you like a limited edition pickled Easter Bunny with radioactive ears with that?”

My rearguard action against this is to say “if it’s free. If it’s not, then you have given me pause for thought. Is my purchase really necessary, if you feel it necessary to offer me more? Is it a good deal for me? No, I think I’ll cancel the whole transaction, so you and your bosses may consider the time you’re costing me by trying to offload stuff on me I didn’t expressly ask for.” And then I walk out of the shop, shoeless, shirtless, or hungry, depending on what I was trying to buy, but with that warm feeling that comes from feeling that I stuck it to the man. Or one of his minions, anyway.

And now, ATM spam. In recent months I’ve noticed my bank will fire a message at me when I’m conducting my automated cash machine business offering some sort of credit card, or car, or complex derivative, I’m not sure what. I’ve noticed that this happens after I’ve ordered my cash, but that the cash won’t start churning inside the machine until I’ve responded to this spam message.

Only when I hit the “no” button does the machine start doing its thing. This drives me nuts because once I’ve entered the details of my ATM transaction I am usually reaching for my wallet ready to catch the notes before they fly around the vestibule or that suspicious looking granny at the next machine makes a grab for them. So to look back at the machine and see this dumb spam message sitting there and no cash irks me no end.

My short-term solution to this is to look deep into the CCTV lens and utter obscenities, but I have of late realized this may not improve my creditworthiness. Neither has it stopped the spam messages.

So I took it to the next person up the chain, a bank staff member standing nearby called Keith. “Not only is this deeply irritating,” I told him, “but it’s a security risk.” He nodded sagely. I suspect my reputation may have preceded me. I won a small victory against this particular bank a few years back when I confided in them that the message that appeared on the screen after customers log out of their Internet banking service—“You’ve logged out but you haven’t logged off”, accompanied by a picture of some palm trees and an ad for some holiday service—may confuse and alarm users rather than help them. Eventually the bank agreed to pull the ad.

So I was hoping a discreet word with Keith would do the trick. Is there no way, I said, for users to opt out of these messages? And I told him about my security fears, pointing discreetly to the elderly lady who was now wielding her Zimmer frame menacingly at the door. Keith, whose title, it turns out, is First Impression Officer, said he’d look into it.

So I’m hopeful I will have won another small battle on behalf of us consumers. Yes I know I may sound somewhat eccentric, but that’s what they want us to think. My rule of thumb is this: If you want to take up my time trying to sell me something because you know I can’t escape, then you should pay for it—the product or my time, take your pick.

Now, while I’ve got your attention, can I interest you in some of those Easter bunny things? They’re actually very good.

The Skype Revolution Wears Thin

What’s going on over at Skype? The one thing that I felt was really useful with the service, apart from all the free chats, was their Skype In service, allowing you to have one phone number wherever you were. You could set it up to forward to any phone on the planet, or your Skype account, or to your Skype voicemail, and it worked great. Now it’s gone.

Well, not gone, but they’ve had to change some of their numbers. This is the message I just received from them:

We’re very sorry to tell you that we have to change your SkypeIn number. As some of you may know, we get SkypeIn numbers from a variety of telecoms suppliers. Unfortunately, we have to return some of the 0207 SkypeIn numbers to one of our suppliers of London numbers.

This means your number will stop working from December 20th 2007. We realise the inconvenience this will cause you, and sincerely apologise.

That’s less than a month away. How on earth can you go around the world telling every Tom, Dick and Auntie Phyllis you’ve ever given your “lifetime” number to that it’s changed in that time? And just before Christmas, to boot!

To soften the blow Skype have given people affected “a new SkypeIn number and voicemail – free for 12 months on us – to thank you for your patience and to help make the changeover as painless as possible for you.” 

Nice thought, and would help, except the voucher doesn’t work. At least not for me. Just keep getting an “invalid voucher” message. So more pain and delay. 

I still talk about the Skype Revolution, where ordinary Joes can suddenly increase their tech knowledge and stay in touch with people more easily than ever before, but I’m beginning to wonder whether it isn’t time for someone smarter, quicker and better organized to take over the revolution.

Update: I’ve heard from Merje Järv- Griffiths of Skype, who offers this extra information on the dropped numbers:

As you know, Skype obtains SkypeIn numbers from a variety of telecoms suppliers.  The London-based SkypeIn numbers in question came from one of these telecoms suppliers. We spent months in discussions with a telecoms supplier to see if we could keep the SkypeIn numbers we rented from them, confident that the issue could be resolved. Hence the somewhat late notice to our users — we never thought things would get this far, given the time and effort put into resolving the situation.

Unfortunately, we have to return some of our 0207 numbers so we’re asking our SkypeIn users who are affected to change their London-based SkypeIn number.

And if any of you are having the same problems I had in redeeming the voucher, try this.

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An End to the Anonymity of Trash?

Britain is quietly introducing RFID (Radio Frequency Identity) tags to rubbish bins (trash cans) in a bid to measure the individual waste of each household and charge them accordingly. Some Britons are up in arms about this, saying that households have not been informed and calling it an abuse of privacy. Is it?

The UK’s Daily Mail reports that some bins, provided by local councils for households to dispose of their trash, contain coin-sized devices that monitor how much non-recyclable waste the owner throws out:

With the bugging technology, the electronic chips are carefully hidden under the moulded front ’lip’ of wheelie bins used by householders for non-recyclable waste. As the bin is raised by the mechanical hoister at the back of the truck, the chip passes across an antenna fitted to the lifting mechanism. That enables the antenna to ’read’ a serial number assigned to each property in the street.

A computer inside the truck weighs the bin as it is raised, subtracts the weight of the bin itself and records the weight of the contents on an electronic data card.

When the truck returns to the depot, all the information collected on the round is transmitted to a hand-held device and downloaded on to the council’s centralised computer. Each household can be billed for the amount of waste collected – even though they have already paid for the services through their council tax.

According to The Mail two German companies manufacture the bins and sensors, Sulo and RFID specialist Deister Electronic.

As with all such things, the story reflects local fears, obsessions and behaviour. First off, drinking: The Mail quotes a local council chairman saying he believed the chips “were simply to ensure bins could be returned to the right addresses if they got mixed up or drunks rolled them off”. Second, avoiding paying: The opposition Conservative party warns that “people will simply start dumping bags in their neighbours’ gardens or at the end of the street to avoid paying”. And then there’s the whole castle thing: a council spokesman in Wiltshire says the chips were “to sort out disputes between householders about whose wheelie bin is whose. If there are any arguments we can just send out an officer to scan the chip and settle the argument.” Oh, and then there’s the whole WWII hang-up: The headline at The Evening Standard’s This is London website is “Germans plant bugs in our wheelie bins”.

Is this something to be worried about? Well, the government, and local councils, haven’t been very smart about installing these tags before explaining their use to the public. But that’s not unusual: A council in Australia did the same thing a few weeks back. What I think is most interesting about this is that coverage of the subject in both countries lacks depth, pandering to the fears of its readers (The Mail may not know better, but The Press Association and The Independent should.) Even basic research would show that this sort of thing is not new, is widely used elsewhere, and has a name: Pay-by-weight.

It seems the same technology is already in use in Ireland and has, according to the company involved, reduced the amount of trash put out for collection by 40%. (There may have been some privacy uproar, but I can’t find any obvious evidence of any.) In Canada the program has been in place since 1994, and as of 1999 more than 1.5 million transponders have been deployed throughout the world, including the U.S., although there have been problems with the technology (this being RFID an’ all.)

That said, just because it’s being used elsewhere doesn’t necessarily make it a good thing. Trash is as much a privacy issue as anything linked to personal property, and the angry response to the news is related to an individual’s desire to keep what they throw out a secret (however illogical this is, given you’re putting it in an unlocked plastic bin in the street for hours, if not days, before it’s picked up.) Further research into what these RFID chips are capable of isn’t particularly reassuring: The SULO device for example (PDF file), can measure exact weight, when the bin is emptied, can report any damage to the bin, and, if linked to other equipment, could also locate where the bin was emptied. Nothing too sinister about this, but it increases the possibility, at least in theory, that an individual’s trash is no longer as anonymous as it was.

Bottom line? I don’t think this is likely, and given the technology has been in active service for more than a decade. But who knows where the technology may go? This is more a story about how RFID — although it’s not really identified in the story as such — scares people when they hear about it because instinctively they recognise its power. No one would disagree with the goal — reducing the amount of non-recyclable waste — but, as with all technologies, Pay by weight has to be handled carefully, its usage and goals explained, and clear and transparent limits to its usage imposed.

Getting Dating Advice Online

If you’re willing to fork out $20 a month for dating advice, you’re in luck. A newly launched website,  econfidant (“smarter advice for dating & relationships”) does just that:  

econfidant can answer all of your dating or relationship questions. No question is too basic or too involved. We can help you strategize how to get dates, work on ways to make your relationship work, help you figure out what you are really looking for in a relationship, or provide suggestions on fun things to do on dates. econfidant addresses questions, concerns and issues related to all stages of the dating process- there are no bad questions.

It’ll be interesting to see if they still think that after a few hundred questions along the lines of “my date hasn’t called me back after I burped the national anthem on the car-ride home. It was a long ride, the conversation had thinned out and I didn’t know the words. What should I do next?” 

Anyway, econfidant is the brainchild, if that’s the right word, of Rachel Begelman and Sarna Lee, “two longtime friends whose own experiences convinced them no one should experience dating alone”. (Both are currently in long-term relationships.) I certainly agree with part of their premise: “We live in an age where we meet more people online than in real life and where a text message can be interpreted a thousand ways,” Begelman said. “The one-size-fits-all model of relationship books and advice columns is no longer enough.” (It’s interesting how SMS gets blamed for all sorts of things, probably correctly. There’s a whole thesis in there, if someone is not already doing it.)  

The idea, then, is that people are going to feel happy about coughing up $20 a month to tell their problems to strangers because “you can get the advice you’re seeking without having to worry about what a friend might think or repeat, and without having to listen to their problems first, ” according to Ms. Lee. In other words, friendships can be a real pain when they’re two-way. Whatever happened to friends who never told you their problems, but loved listening to yours?

Anyway, I wish I could say I thought this was a good thing. But I don’t. I’m not against online dating. Finding a partner is a bit like finding a job: You rarely find one through close friends, so networking makes sense. But going online for romantic advice? Perhaps it might work in some cases — some people clearly need a slap or clip around the ear, a need that can be spotted by long time friend or complete stranger alike. But I worry that this is getting mighty close to outsourcing one’s friends. How can the quality of a response to question of a few sentences take into account the peculiarities of every situation, of every person? Isn’t the backlog of knowledge one builds up about one’s friends through long tedious conversations about their problems preparing us for exactly to dispense the kind of advice a friend having dating issues might need?

Who knows. I’d test it myself (you get a first question free) but I’m happily married. There’s no website for that, although I’m sure there will be one day.

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Cracking RFID With Your Phone

RFID tags and their security implications are returning to centre stage again. Adi Shamir, professor of computer science at the Weizmann Institute, has shown that it’s possible to crack passwords on RFID tags using a cellphone. In theory this could mean anyone with a cellphone could monitor traffic between a tag and a reader and collect the information being transmitted. As EE Times’ Rick Merritt writes (via Digg)

“I haven’t tested all RFID tags, but we did test the biggest brand and it is totally unprotected,” Shamir said. Using this approach, “a cellphone has all the ingredients you need to conduct an attack and compromise all the RFID tags in the vicinity,” he added.

Shamir said the pressure to get tags down to five cents each has forced designers to eliminate any security features, a shortcoming that needs to be addressed in next-generation products.

Quite a few of the comments on the Digg link are of the “why should we care?” variety:

I still dont understand what the big fuss is about RFID security. I mean who cares if someone knows that you just bought milk and eggs or that you are carrying around the latest Playboy. What could be tagged with RFID that people would so desperately need to keep private? I think that people are wrapped a little bit tightly around the issue.

This kind of response is infuriating, but predictable, and the reason why there’s still a huge gulf between the value we attach to our personal data and the value companies in the world of data collection attach to it. It is precisely the detail of our lives that is valuable to others; this detail — whether we bought milk, eggs or Playboy — comes together to form a very detailed profile of the consumer. The consumer is also a bank account holder, a patient, a credit card applicant, a driver, an employee. When all this information gathered on the individual is collated, it forms an alarmingly precise picture of their habits, their problems, their foibles — do you want a potential employer to know you read Playboy?, a life insurer to know you consume lots of fatty foods? — which might, just might, in the future prove the difference between a job, a loan, a credit card, a house.